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Art as  Encounter  –  Relational  aesthetics  and  the  quality  of  the  encounter    

Over  the  past  few  decades,  we  have  been  witnessing  the  shaping  of  a  new  form  of  art,  one  that  puts   a  significant  emphasis  on  the  relationship  between  the  artist  and  the  public,  perhaps  more  than   ever  before;  one  where  the  public  has  become  a  crucial  part  of  the  creative  process.  Nicolas   Bourriaud  defines  relational  aesthetics  as  a  contemporary  art  practice  centered  on  inter-­‐human   relations,  where  the  core  of  the  concept  is  the  word  “participation”  and  it  is  based  on  inter-­‐ subjectivity,  and  which  “takes  being-­‐together  as  a  central  theme,  the  ‘encounter’  between  the   beholder  and  the  picture,  and  the  collective  elaboration  of  meaning.”1     In  this  paper,  I  wish  to  analyze  the  quality  of  the  encounters  that  take  place  within  this   participatory  practice,  depending  on  the  degree  of  public  participation,  the  kind  and  the  intensity  of   the  emotion  produced  by  the  artist  and  how  it  is  perceived  by  the  viewer.  I  will  focus  mainly  on  the   work  of  Rirkrit  Tiravanija,  Felix  Gonzalez-­‐Torres  and  Alix  Lambert,  three  of  the  artists  mentioned   by  Nicolas  Bourriaud,  in  his  book  “Relational  Aesthetics”.    

Introduction   What  can  be  defined  as  “encounter”?  How  can  we  describe  “art  as  encounter”?  Is   it  art  lived  as  a  “pure  experience”?  It  is  something  that  makes  us  aware  of   ourselves,  a  revealing  emotion  which  seemingly  comes  from  within,  but  is  generated   by  something  beyond  our  comprehension,  perhaps  an  exterior  correspondence.  As   Gilles  Deleuze  sais,  “something  in  the  world  forces  us  to  think.  This  something  is  an   object  not  of  recognition,  but  of  fundamental  encounter.”2  What  generates  this   sensation?  Or,  if  we  are  to  speak  about  relational  aesthetics,  who  generates  this   encounter?  Nicolas  Bourriaud  believes  the  origin  lies  within  the  artist’s  concept  and   ideas.  He  believes  a  successful  relational  project  is  one  in  which  artists  and  viewers   communicate  creatively  with  one  another,  that  is,  they  “produce”  relationships.   Claire  Bishop  stated  she  does  not  trust  in  Bourriaud’s  theory,  as  the  “relations  set  by   relational  aesthetics  are  not  intrinsically  democratic,  as  Bourriaud  suggests,   since  they  rest  too  comfortably  within  an  ideal  of  subjectivity  as  whole  and  of   community  as  immanent  togetherness.”3  Put  differently,  what  Claire  Bishop  is   inferring  is  that  the  relational  artist  expects  the  viewer  to  participate  and  does   not  question  neither  the  degree  of  participation  nor  the  nature  of  the  participant.   According  to  John  Dewey,  the  beholder  cannot  fully  comprehend  the  significance  of   art  and  perceive  its  quality  unless  he/she  is  aware  of  art  history  and  its  evolution.   “The  perceiver,  as  much  as  the  creator,  needs  a  rich  and  developed  background   which,  whether  it  be  painting  in  the  field  of  poetry,  or  music,  cannot  be  achieved   except  by  consistent  nurture  of  interest.”4  In  other  words,  it  is  a  matter  of   connecting  the  dots  and  if  the  viewer  is  not  familiarized  with  the  art  practices,  that   artist’s  concept  or  idea  can  barely  generate  any  question  or  emotion.  I  consider   living  an  artistic  experience  is  something  beyond  our  background  and  education;  it  is   something  that  connects  us  to  reality.  Art  is  an  imitation  of  the  reality  and  perhaps  it   is  the  only  way  to  make  obvious  something  otherwise  imperceptible.  Experiencing   art  is  a  pure  emotion  and  it  is  a  highly  subjective  matter.  It  is  pure  since  it  comes                                                                                                                   1  Nicolas  Bourriaud,  Relational  Aesthetics;  (Les  presses  du  reel,  2002),  p.  15;   2  Gilles  Deleuze,  Difference  and  Repetition,  p.  139;     3  Claire  Bishop,  Antagonism  and  Relational  Aesthetics,  p.  67;   4  John  Dewey,  Art  as  Experience,  p.  266;  


from within  and  the  foundation  of  it  cannot  be  easily  tracked  and  revealed;  it  is   subjective,  for  each  human  being  perceives  it  differently.  We  literally  see  colors   differently;  therefore  an  objective  truth  cannot  be  attainable.  There  is  something   beyond  this  reaction  that  links  us  to  a  work  of  art.  Living  a  “pure  experience”  within   relational  art  is  perhaps  like  as  pure  as  a  love  encounter.  It  involves  two  entities,   affecting  them  both  in  such  way  that  they  become  the  subject  of  the  experience.   Similarly,  a  relational  piece  affects  the  artist  in  the  same  way  as  it  affects  the  viewer.   The  question  here  might  be:  What  is  the  actual  cause  of  this  encounter?  Where  does   love  come  from?  We  realize  the  feeling  has  formed  within  our  souls,  but  we  do  we   manage  to  find  the  source  of  it?  Is  it  perhaps  a  higher  force  where  all  this  originates   from?  Felix  Guattari  speaks  about  the  encounter  as  “affect”;  depending  on  how  the   affect  is  exerted  on  the  percept  and  to  what  extent,  one  can  see  the  quality  of  an   encounter:  “Affect  is  thus  essentially  a  pre-­‐personal  category,  installed  ‘before’   the  circumstances  of  identities,  and  manifested  by  unlocatable  transferences,   unlocatable  with  regard  to  their  destination  […].”5  Hence,  the  viewer  and  the   artist  become  the  subject  of  the  concept,  but  they  are  unable  to  tell  where  the   emotions  come  from,  or  what  new  realms  they  are  headed  towards.  And  since  it   is  a  matter  of  “subjectivization”,  I  have  found  three  types  by  analyzing  the   sincerity  of  the  emotion  that  the  three  artists  transfer  within  their  projects.   Rirkrit  Tiravanija  …..Gonzalez-­‐Torres  and  Alix  Lambert.     Rirkrit  Tiravanija  and  the  “positive”6  encounter     Rirkrit  Tiravanija’  work  is  centered  on  food  and  the  social  aspects  of  eating.  One  of   his  projects  consisted  of  him  cooking  meals  for  people  attending  galleries  and   museums.  “Pad  Thai,  Vegetable  Curry  and  Cup  O’Noodles  are  among  the  various   dishes  Tiravanija  has  fed  his  participants/audience  in  galleries  and  museums  from   Sotto  to  Venice.”7  He  is  a  New-­‐York  based  artist  who  grew  up  in  Ethiopia,  Argentina   and  Bangkok  and  much  of  this  project  is  influenced  by  his  experience  in  his   grandmother’s  restaurant  in  Bangkok.  Tiravanija  believes  that  food  and  people’s   interaction  with  it  are  defining  elements  of  human  existence.  In  this  case,  cooking  for   free  becomes  an  event  that  brings  people  together  for  the  purpose  of   communication.  People  have  an  authentic  experience,  they  shape  new  forms  of   relationship,  learn  to  see  art  as  an  “open-­‐ended”  matter,  as  Bourriaud  calls  it,  “a   period  of  time  to  be  lived  through,  like  an  opening  to  unlimited  discussion.”8   Spinoza  defines  this  type  of  experience  as  a  “joyful  encounter”:  “organizing  good   encounters,  composing  actual  relations,  forming  powers,  experimenting.”  Here   we  speak  about  the  direct  encounter  between  the  artist  and  the  viewer,  the   dialogue.  It  is  the  type  of  experience  where  the  “affect”  exerts  an  undeviating                                                                                                                   5  Felix  Guattari,  Ritornellos  and  Existential  Affects  -­‐  Polysemiosis,  p.161;   6  Simon  O’Sullivan  mentions  the  term  “joyful  encounters”,  when  referring  to  Spinoza  and Deleuze’s definitions on the “affect” and the “affected body”. “An affect is then not simply a given intensity, although in a sense it begins with this. For Deleuze–Spinoza the latter is in fact termed affection, or the actual ‘state of the affected body’ (which in itself ‘implies the presence of the affecting body’ (PP 49)). These affections ‘express our state at a given moment in time … they are a slice of our duration’ (ECC139).” (Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari – Thought beyond Representation, p. 41) 7  Amy  Stafford,  Surface  Magazine,  issue  no.  5;     8Nicolas  Bourriaud,  Relational  Aesthetics  (Les  presses  du  reel,  2002),  p.15;  


impact on  participants.  Thus,  the  “addressee”  has  the  power  to  send  back  the   emotions  that  he/she  receives  from  the  “utterer”.9  This  is  the  instant  where  the   artist  and  the  viewer  become  one,  sharing  the  same  experience.  They  become  the   subject.  It  is  a  given  moment  in  time,  a  “duration”,  when  subjectivization  is  born   –  “the  production  of  joyful  encounters  that  increase  our  capacity  to  act  in  the   world.”10 In this type of shared experience, the public is given the role of the cocreator. Claire Bishop argued on the quality of the public that is attending Tiravanija’s events and whether or not this is indeed art only because it takes place within a gallery. I would argue that the concept is highly dependent on the context and the quality of the public. And Bourriaud clearly states that “Those  artists  proposing  as   artworks  a/  moments  of  sociability”  and  “b/  objects  producing  sociability   also  sometimes  use  a  relational  context  defined  in  advance  so  as  to  extract   production  principles  from  it.  The  exploration  of  relations  existing  between,  for   instance,  the  artist  and  his/her  gallery  owner  may  determine  forms  and  a   project.”  The fact that Tiravanija’s event takes place within a gallery or a museum changes not only the context, but also the quality of the viewers. This is what actually distinguishes it from the simple idea of “entertainment” within a restaurant. Many of Tiravanija’s participants were artists and curators. By bringing together a community of artists, the project itself gives birth to new creations, new ideas, new concepts and events. Hence, we can see a positive outcome of these “joyful encounters”.   Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the “bitter-sweet” encounter Bourriaud  gives  the  beholder  different  roles,  from  ‘passive  consumer’,  or   ‘witness’,  from  ‘guest’  and  even  ‘co-­‐producer’  and  ‘protagonist’  of  the  artwork.   In  the  case  of  Gonzalez-­‐Torres,  the  concept  is  “worked  out  in  inter-­‐subjectivity,   in  the  emotional,  behavioral  and  historical  response  given  by  the  beholder  to  the   experience  proposal.  The  encounter  with  the  work  gives  rise  not  so  much  to  a   space,  […]  as  to  a  time  span.  Time  of  manipulation,  understanding,  decision-­‐ making,  going  beyond  the  act  of  ‘rounding  off’  the  work  by  looking  at  it.”11   Gonzalez  Torres  explores  the  idea  of  transience  and  loss  with  the  concept   “Untitled(Placebo)”.  “The  work  consists  of  an  endless  supply  of  pineapple-­‐ flavored  candies  wrapped  in  silver  cellophane,  which  are  spread  out  on  the   floor.”12  The  viewers  can  passively  contemplate  the  piece,  but  they  are  also   allowed  to  take  the  candies.  They  are  in  fact,  asked  to  take  one  or  two  candies   from  the  installation,  until  there  are  no  more  candies  left.  Adults  or  children,   viewers  will  bend  down,  dip  towards  the  pile  and  constantly  change  the  shape  of   the  pile,  until  they  face  the  final  idea  of  the  concept  –  desolation,  death.  The   concept  reflects  the  artist’s  personal  struggle  with  AIDS  and  love.  A  placebo  is   defined  as  a  substance  containing  no  medication  that  is  given  to  reinforce  a   patient’s  expectation  to  get  well.  Hence,  “Untitled  (Placebo)”  can  be  seen  as  an   escape  from  death.  He  has  found  a  way  to  communicate  and  bond  with  people,   taking  into  account  the  limitations  that  AIDS  creates  in  terms  of  physical  contact   and  intimacy.  He  takes  the  bitterness,  but  gives  people  the  sweetness  of  life.  It  is                                                                                                                   9     10  Simon  O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari – Thought beyond Representation, p. 78)   11  Nicolas  Bourriaud,  Relational  Aesthetics  (Les  presses  du  reel),  p.59;   12  MOMA  object  files  for  Felix-­‐Gonzalez  Torres    


a relationship  based  upon  object  and  viewer,  but  the  “affect”  that  is  exerted   indirectly  upon  the  perceiver  has  a  higher  emotional  intensity,  due  to  the   implication  of  death  and  love  within  the  concept.  Disregarding  how  much  we   have  evolved,  we  are  still  possessed  by  the  fear  of  death  and  the  desire  to  love.   And  the  dramatic  implication  of  these  two  encounters  rest  upon  the  viewer   perhaps  far  longer  than  the  “joyful  encounter”  with  authentic  food  and  artistic   “immanent  togetherness.”13      Bourriaud  considers  Gonzalez-­‐Torres’s  work  to  be   “implicit”,  “discreet”,  and  “fluid”  and  although  it  lacks  visual  impact,  utterly   reveals  “subconscious  emotions”.  (p.  63)  “But  what  matters  is  what  is  done  with   this  type  of  emotions:  what  they  are  steered  towards,  how  the  artist  organizes   them  along  themselves  and  to  what  intent.”  I  would  add  also  “to  what  extent”.   And  my  question  regarding  the  controlling  of  the  emotions  is:  Can  the  artist   really  control  the  emotional  plan?  He  initiates  the  idea,  he  “inserts”  the   emotion…  but  where  it  goes,  how  far  and  what  other  ideas  it  can  generate   depends  on  the  beholder’s  background,  personality,  whether  or  not  he/she   relates  to  the  subject.  Tiravanija’s  project  was  a  given  moment  in  time,  an   experiment.  I  believe  Gonzalez-­‐Torres’s  piece  is  an  ongoing  process.  The  emotion   is  given  through  the  concept,  and  the  participant’s  ideas  start  flowing.  It  is  a   piece  that  perhaps  raises  new  philosophies  about  life,  death,  longing,  and   sexuality…they  stick  to  our  minds  perhaps  long  after  the  exhibition  has  finished.           Alix  Lambert  and  the  “ironic”  encounter     At  a  Walker  Art  Center  lecture,  Simon  Critchley  refers  to  joke,  as  a  fundamental   encounter  that  creates  human  relations.  This  again,  is  highly  context  specific.  It   can  be  ironic,  entertaining,  disturbing,  “absurd  and  extremely  obscene.”14  In  Art   Encounters,  a  book  based  on  the  works  of  Felix  Guattari  and  Gilles  Deleuze,  the   author  Simon  O’Sullivan  states  “humor  can  operate  as  a  strategy  of  dissent  –  but   also  of  affirmation.  In  fact,  we  might  see  humor  as  a  form  of  affirmative  violence;   a  violence  against  typical  signifying  formations.”15   Alix  Lambert’s  conceptual  work  uses  the  mediums  of  film,  photography,  video   and  performance  art  to  examine  how  and  why  we  develop  social  and  sexual  rules   and  codes.  For  her  1993  work  “Wedding  Project”  she  married  and  divorced  three   men  and  one  woman  in  the  space  of  six  months.  Bourriaud  considers  this  is  how   “Lambert  put  herself  inside  the  ‘adult  role-­‐playing’  represented  by  the  institution   of  marriage.  […]  The  artist  here  becomes  involved  in  form-­‐producing  worlds   (visit  to  the  fortune-­‐teller,  officialization  of  a  liaison,  etc.),  which  pre-­‐exist  him  or   her,  material  that  is  available  for  anyone  to  use.  […]  She  exhibits  objects   produced  by  this  contractual  world-­‐certificates,  official  photos  and  other   souvenirs.”16  In  an  interview  with  Rachel  Greene,  Lambert  declares  she  does  not   disapprove  marriage,  she  just  considers  it  an  institution  that  is  reflective  of   society  –  and  so  there  are  positive  and  negatives  consequences  related  to  it.  She   also  insists  to  underline  “how  thoughtful  people  are  about  making  decisions  –   and  she  refers  here  about  Vegas  weddings,  where  “it  is  possible  to  get  married                                                                                                                   13     14     15  Simon  O’Sullivan   16  Nicolas  Bourriaud,  Relational  Aesthetics  (Les  presses  du  reel,  2002),  p.  34;  


without getting  out  of  your  car.  Further,  rectifying  a  nuptial  error  with  a  divorce   or  annulment  has  also  become,  in  some  cases,  extremely  customer-­‐friendly.”17     As  a  viewer,  I  find  the  “Wedding  Project”  slightly  disturbing.  Indeed,  I  perceive   the  events  within  the  project  as  ironical,  as  a  joke  on  society.  Nevertheless,   marrying  three  men  and  a  woman  in  6  months  and  divorcing  them  all  in  record   time  just  to  prove  just  how  quickly  people  make  wrong  decisions  in  life  brings   nothing  positive  to  me.    Critchley  refers  to  the  word  “ethos”  when  he  speaks   about  laughing  at  people  who  are  not  like  us.  …….  As  an  individual,  I  believe  in   the  institution  of  marriage  as  being  a  once  in  a  lifetime  event,  one  that  creates  a   powerful  bond  between  two  people  brought  together  by  another  encounter:   love.  As  an  artist,  though,  I  must  confess  it  is  a  quite  idealistic  and  perhaps   unrealistic  belief.  Hence,  in  this  case  the  encounter  as  a  joke  can  generate   another  encounter  –  a  conflict  of  beliefs…..  As  an  artist,  I  would  say  Lambert   dedicated  herself  completely  to  the  project,  becoming  a  part  of  it.     So,  even  if  the  viewer  contemplates  and  observes  the  documentation  and  the   photographs,  he/she  becomes  entirely  “affected”  by  the  concept.  It  is  not  the   visual  impact  that  is  intriguing  and  disturbing,  it  is  the  irony,  the  joke,  the  degree   of  participation  of  the  artist,  and  again,  the  ethics.             Conclusion     In  order  to  determine  a  certain  quality  of  an  encounter,  we  need  a  reference   point,  an  ideal.  In  the  Renaissance  we  could  refer  to  divine  perfection  as  ideal.   There  is  no  such  thing  as  divine  perfection  in  the  contemporary  art  practice,  at   least  not  based  on  a  general  objective  point.  As  I  mentioned  in  the  introduction  of   this  essay,  we  all  perceive  the  world  differently  and,  as  contemporary  life  is   giving  us  the  freedom  of  thought,  all  art  is  based  on  inter-­‐subjectivity.  I  would   suggest  that  the  ideal  should  be  established  depending  on  the  purity  and  the   intensity  of  the  experience,  on  how  genuinely  the  “affect”  has  been  imprinted  on   the  onlooker.    I  felt  Gonzalez  Torres  was  the  closest  to  purity,  but  then  again  it  all   depends  on  the  viewer’s  understanding  of  the  world  and  of  the  ethics.  “For Deleuze and Spinoza the science of affect is called ethics; the organization of one’s world so as to produce joyful encounters, or affects which are of the ‘joy-increasing type’, those which increase our capacity to act in the world.”18 Thus, the purity of the encounter lies within the ethics and on how we use and perhaps multiply the emotions and ideas that have been created within our souls after we have experienced an encounter with a relational piece.  

                                                                                                              17  Alix  Lambert,  Wedding  Project  –  Interview  with  Alix  Lambert  (by  Rachel  Greene)   18    

Art as Encounter  

an essay on relational aesthetics